A literary foundation: The wisdom of children’s books

Amelia Oakley 13 May 2015

I'm happy to admit it: I'm a bookworm. I'll find any and every excuse to read, and over the years have tried and tested every covert late-night reading trick in the book. My reading tastes have been varied and eclectic, and for better or worse, I'm very much a product of every book I've ever chosen to read. It is perhaps especially true of the children's literature I have encountered over the years.

Whenever I pack a bag, even if I'm only going out for a few hours, Lemony Snicket is called to mind: "Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them." This warning has stuck with me, even years after I first came across Snicket's dark books. Though perhaps not the most all-encompassing stranger danger message, this warning is representative of my induction via A Series of Unfortunate Events into the real world, complete with the ability to recognise and be wary of villains. Whenever possible, I like to carry a book – hopefully this goes some way towards making me a trustworthy person.

When I wasn't caught up in the dark world of Snicket's Unfortunate Events, I was being raised on a literary diet consisting of the likes of Blyton, Streatfeild and Hodgson Burnett. A recent wave of nostalgia led to me spending an afternoon re-reading A Little Princess. Cinderella, move over – Sara Crewe is the ultimate fairytale heroine. I followed it up with one of the film adaptations, but this only ended in disappointment. I still have happy memories of the book itself, though; rags to riches is the ultimate in fairytale formulas, but Sara Crewe attained a greater level of gravitas thanks to her unbounded imagination and resilience.

There was even more resilience in Noel Streatfeild's works. Beyond Ballet Shoes and Party Shoes, her books are becoming less common and less widely read, but they contained a wealth of lessons. Ballet Shoes and Curtain Up (Streatfeild was especially fond of plots which involved the theatre) fly in the face of cuts to funding for the arts today; the protagonists of both books would be nowhere were it not for their abilities to act and dance, or the support networks available to them to pursue these careers and support their families. And let's not forget Petrova Fossil – she defied gender stereotypes with her love of planes. My favourite of Streatfeild's works, The Growing Summer, strayed from the arts but was a treasure trove of wisdom. I remember wishing for an eccentric aunt like Great Aunt Dymphna, who in response to reasonable questions would spout poetry and leave the Gareth children to find the answers for themselves.

My introduction to the world of boarding schools didn't come through Harry Potter, but through the various boarding school series written by Enid Blyton. It never occurred to me on first reading that the schools were unusual, and came at a price (something I remember Jacqueline Wilson bringing up in Double Act). The schools were merely old-fashioned. This did, however, stand me in good stead when I arrived at Cambridge; though my understanding of the world of private education had greatly improved since the days in which I would read The Twins at St Claire's under the covers, this understanding had been built on a perception of boarding schools which was almost entirely formed by Blyton's writing. It is entirely thanks to Blyton that I have any understanding whatsoever of what lacrosse is.

As I slowly revisit or reminisce about the literature I was brought up on, I occasionally view aspects of it in a different light. I can see that Pat and Isabel O'Sullivan had wealthy parents. I can cry like a baby when I reread the chapter of Goodnight Mr Tom in which Zacharias Wrench dies, and see clearly the darker undertones of the story as a whole in a way which I was incapable of at the age of eight. I can see the heartbreak behind Pollyanna's efforts to play 'The Glad Game', and see the encouragement of reading provided by Matilda's story. But I don't forget the first time I read these books, and the way that their characters have stayed with me ever since. I revisit some of my favourite childhood literature from time to time, and what's wrong with that?